Much Ado about Nothing

A review of Jesse Burton’s The Miniaturist by Kate Wilson

Before she became an author at the age of 33, Jesse Burton had trained as an actress[1] and it certainly shows in her debut The Miniaturist, one of a number of contemporary novels set in the Netherlands of the 17th century [2]. With her penchant for performance, there is plenty of sexed-up melodrama, plus the entire gamut of human feelings at a pace to make your nerves tingle - the ones in your teeth, that is. The novel is mixed genre, boasting a combination of period romance, supernatural thriller and moral tale, and true to its theatrical influences, progresses scene by scene with several sensation-inducing set pieces along the way to its awkwardly choreographed tragic conclusion.


Centre-stage is the sweet, passionate but extraordinarily visceral Petronella Oortman, whose guts swill and whose bowels go

weak when fear (as it often does) hardens her gut. On arriving as an arranged bride in the household of rich merchant Johannes Brandt, she soon discovers the shocking privacies of Brandt’s hostile sister, his competitive male lover and a disagreeable merchant couple, long time friends of her new husband. On top of this, she has to deal with a spooky Doll’s House in her bedroom, (there is an odd thrill in the wood), as well as coping with her own ambiguous feelings about the (it transpires, female) miniaturist of the title, whom she has hired to furnish it with tiny pieces of furniture and life-like dolls. The miniaturist, an all-pervasive presence in the novel who never actually materializes, appears to be able to read her mind, watching her from the inside, like some, as Nella imagines with a frisson, psycho taxidermist:

It was as if she was skinning Nella, (…) dismantling her body bit, by bit. And yet, simultaneously, Nella felt so concentrated.

But Nella is tough and she learns quickly –she has to –because things start to become much more bloody than being virtually dissected by an unknown stalker. There are some stagey scenes involving dog’s blood and human blood, post-partum blood and for good measure, pig's blood; oh, and an engorged penis. So, something for everyone, then.

Burton writes at her best in the final two or three pages where she captures a genuinely elegiac note unfortunately not supported by the rest of the novel.  Elsewhere, her style has a brash verve about it, a tenacious energy which will blow the cobwebs from your grey matter and every brain cell along with them. Just lie back, if you will, and surrender your critical faculties without worrying about loose ends, iffy motives, puppet characters, stilted dialogue, botched syntax, anachronistic bullets and snowdrops that have upward-facing flowers.  A million readers in 32 languages have already done it. It’s quite painless for most. For those who want even more, there are some very sophisticated media people[3] who are working very hard on their own behalf to bring the book to your TV anytime soon. The author says she ‘cannot wait to see Nella and Johannes brought to life’. Could that mean they weren't already?

[1] The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama,  incorporated into  the University of London, 2005.

[2] The Girl in a Pearl Earring by Tracey Chevalier (1999), set in Delft, Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach (1999), set in Amsterdam, Rembrant’s Whore by Sylvie Matton (2003), I am Rembrandt’s Daughter by Lynn Cullen (2008).


Picture: Johannes Vermeer - The Love Letter, Rijksmuseum